The Primate Diaries

Science and the Worship of Truth

I am tremendously excited to have David Sloan Wilson as a member of ScienceBlogs, and having had a small role in his decision is extremely gratifying. However, I take serious issue with the thesis of his first entry that bears the subtitle “Science as a Religion that Worships Truth as its God.” This sat uncomfortably with me when I first saw it and it’s been a persistent irritation ever since.

A light went off when I read one of the comments on his inaugural post. It was buried down the list (#54 to be precise), was only two sentences long, and would easily have been overlooked if I didn’t recognize his telltale handle. It was from my former blog colleague Henry Gee, Senior Editor at Nature. Henry wrote:

Your slogan is flat-out wrong and betrays a fundamental flaw in your understanding of what science is. Science is not a religion that worships Truth as its God – Science is a Religion that Worships Doubt.


I think there’s a danger reflected in the idea of perceiving the results of science as revealed Truth akin to religion. As I’ve discussed before, it is my view that science and religion are fundamentally different. First, however, it’s important to point out the ways in which they are the same. Having studied primates for many years (specifically bonobos) it’s very easy to spot similarities between human societies. Primates, whether bonobos or humans, are fond of forming groups and developing social hierarchies. Individuals rise within those hierarchies based on ability and political patronage. This is so obvious that it’s not often appreciated.

Scientists and Cardinals both rise to a given position in their field based on how their work is regarded by their peers and how well they play the game. If you identify someone as a potential ally or you want to curry favor with someone higher up than you are there are a few standard tactics. You help promote their work, praise them in public, invite them to conferences, and help them advance in their field. In bonobos this is called social grooming (though, admittedly, bonobo conferences are probably a lot more fun). This reflects a tit-for-tat political exchange that is universal to our species as well as many others.

Scientists also have a creed, or a set of beliefs that guide their action. This creed is that the natural world demonstrates predictable patterns that can be deciphered with careful analysis. Rather than study the Bible incessantly and debate what it can tell us about God’s plan, scientists study nature. If you like, you can even go as far as Thomas Carlyle in his criticism of Charles Darwin and state that scientists are beholden to a “Gospel of Dirt.” The method of science is to bounce ideas off of reality in order to separate the ones that work from the ones that don’t. Christians and Muslims have their sacred text, scientists have theirs. However, this is where the comparison ends.

While religious proponents believe that there is a One Truth that has been revealed through their sacred book, science operates under the assumption that human reason is finite and that a scientific theory is only valid until further evidence either refines or discards it for a better explanation. Science is never finished. It’s a continuing work in progress and any accepted theory is merely “provisionally true” for the time being.

There is also no single truth that is independent of the investigator. This was made abundantly clear thanks to research at the subatomic level. A particle, such as an electron, can only be understood as having a specific location or to be moving in a specific direction. You can’t have both. The action of measuring the electron, hitting it with a photon of light in order to record it, changes its behavior. The investigator alters the investigation. This is the case for biology the same way it is for particle physics. Manipulating bacteria in a laboratory or chasing after bonobos in the rainforest can significantly alter the results that you record. Furthermore, the cultural biases of the scientist influence the very questions that they will ask in the first place. These biases may not be recognized for generations.

However, this reality doesn’t undermine the power of science as an explanatory tool. What it does is limit our own hubris. If science is to be effective, it must be humble. Asserting that science is the new priesthood that is seeking to reveal a single Truth is to fall victim to the same self-aggrandizement that the clergy have been guilty of for centuries. There has been far too much damage caused by such certainty. I for one will continue to worship doubt and will question anyone who claims to hold THE answer without sufficient evidence. And even then I’ll maintain a healthy skepticism.

UPDATE: After finishing this post I discovered that Henry Gee had posted something on this very topic. I encourage you to check it out.

Comments

  1. #1 cromercrox
    October 22, 2009

    Coo. I’m writing this comment as a placeholder, merely to express admiration, Sir. I shall write more when I have woken up sufficiently to be able to spell ‘epistemological’ (though ‘batrachochytridiomycosis’ will forever remain beyond my grasp).

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    October 22, 2009

    Scientists don’t worship Truth, we just follow it on tour and keep getting bruised trying to get into the mosh pit.

    (I promise you, that metaphor made sense in my head.)

  3. #3 cromercrox
    October 23, 2009

    OK, here’s my considered comment.

    Cool.

    That’s All. I’ll go now.

  4. #4 Bob O'H
    October 23, 2009

    Well said! As always.

    The truth thing had grated with me too, but I concluded I’d be making enough trouble later to pick on it now. I don’t think my contribution will be missed.

  5. #5 Kurt
    October 23, 2009

    Fantastic post. Rarely is science discussed these days without a whole fuckload of baggage attached.

  6. #6 Charles
    October 23, 2009

    I don’t disagree, especially on science, but would point out that what you say for science is similar for at least some religious folks (not all, of course). Let me rephrase what you’ve said to explain:

    Religious proponents believe that there is a One Truth that has been revealed through their sacred book, but they operate under the assumption that human reason is finite and that a theological position is only valid until further evidence (or understanding) either refines or discards it for a better explanation. Religion in its being understood as a search for understanding of the One Truth is never finished. It’s a continuing work in progress and any accepted interpretation is merely “provisionally true” for the time being.

    There is also no single interpretation of Truth that is independent of the investigator.

    Thus, if religion is to be effective, it must be humble. There has been far too much damage caused by such certainty. I for one will continue to remain doubtful of my own interpretations and will question anyone who claims to hold THE answer without sufficient evidence. And even then I’ll maintain a healthy skepticism.

  7. #7 Rob
    October 23, 2009

    Andre Gide once said:

    “Admire those who seek the truth; beware those who find it.”

    Science is about demolishing truth.

  8. #8 Tom
    October 23, 2009

    I disagree. If Science “worships” anything it is evidence and not doubt. Doubt produces no truth by itself. It can equally throw out truth as well as falsehoods. Science does not worship doubting everything, but selectively doubting ideas which do not agree with evidence. Science puts its sole trust in evidence, in fact. Evidence is the ultimate judge to scientific ideas. In the words of RP Feynman, “If it doesn’t agree with evidence, it is wrong.” That we should worship evidence as the basis for formulating our understanding of the universe and ourselves is more accurate that trusting to doubt alone.

  9. #9 abc
    October 23, 2009

    Very well said!

  10. #10 bob koepp
    October 23, 2009

    I think DSW is making more sense here than some of his critics. Notice that he doesn’t anywhere say that truth is supernatural — just that for scientists it is (or ought to be?) sacred. And he’s hardly being idiosyncratic in suggesting that a “sense of the sacred” is a “religous sentiment.”

    Taking a different tack, it’s also been suggested that doubt (or maybe evidence), rather than truth, is what scientists view (or should view?) as sacred. Here’s where a philosophical sensibility, tuned to “conceptual priority”, might be valuable. I doubt very much that one can articulate the concept of ‘doubt’ (or ‘evidence’) without reference to ‘truth’. Nor, for that matter, is there a plausible explanation of why doubt (or evidence) are valued except for their relation to truth.

    All in all, I suspect that DSW is much better informed and more nuanced in his views about these matters than most of the commenters. We shall see.

  11. #11 No Worship
    October 23, 2009

    I hate analogizing science to religion. It is like categorizing health as another type of disease. Science does not ‘worship’ anything. Science is a series of practices lead by rational inquiry. Worship, or any worship like behavior, is simply not a part of it.

  12. #12 JB
    October 23, 2009

    This is where Eastern Philosophy and Western Religion differ as well. In the East, spirituality is based on non-attachment (to even truth). It is practiced and investigated, and if one moves forward, it is through the evaporation of barriers (often truths).

    In the West, “organized” spirituality is usually based on creeds that are articles of “faith” (and often bias). This is not to say that there isn’t movement for some. For many who mature in the west, faith is only the hook that prompts investigation. Unfortunately, for others it is “truth” that keeps them stuck, and often causes much of the trouble we see in the world.

  13. #13 llewelly
    October 23, 2009

    From a practical standpoint, in the US discourse, analogizing science to religion is handing the creationists, so-called alternative medicine proponents, and other anti-science types a sharp rhetorical knife. Those folk will mis-represent any such essay with great success, and deceive the unwary.

  14. #14 eNeMeE
    October 23, 2009

    I much preferred this one:

    Science can even be regarded as a religion that worships truth as its god. It might seem provocative to put it this way, but I find the comparison compelling and challenge my readers to show what’s wrong with it.

    It transparently misuses the words “religion”, “worships” and “god”, and includes a number of category errors. Truth has none of the attributes of a god, and the behavior of scientists towards truth does not have the attributes of worship. Furthermore, science is a methodological framework for epistemological accretion, not a religion, and it is not religions that worship things, it is people.

    Posted by: Marcel Kincaid | October 22, 2009 4:17 AM

  15. #15 abb3w
    October 23, 2009

    Hm. Yanking a couple hyperlinks for faster posting….

    Eric Michael Johnson: This creed is that the natural world demonstrates predictable patterns that can be deciphered with careful analysis.

    Does it require patterns be predictable (EG: in complexity class P), or merely perhaps decidable (in class R) or recognizable (in class RE)? The distinction might be obscure to those without a computer science background, but would appear to have non-trivial philosophical implications.

    Of course, I may just be a kook.

    (There’s also the implied presupposition that the foundational propositions of analysis — the ZF axioms — are self-consistent. Science usually leaves worries about that to the mathematicians, however.)

  16. #16 John Gathly
    October 23, 2009

    @abb3w

    Thank you. At least someone said it.

  17. #17 titmouse
    October 23, 2009

    “Worships truth” doesn’t sound right. Yet I don’t like “worships doubt” either, for doubt can be pathological –e.g., HIV denialism.

    Maybe catchy sayings generally just kinda suck.

  18. #18 MadScientist
    October 23, 2009

    @charles #6: Let us assume that is indeed the case with a religion – any religion really. Now how does that religion know that, say, executing prostitutes by pelting them with large stones isn’t really what god wanted afterall (even though he said so in his book)? Religion doesn’t – there is no truth whatsoever to the claim of being “another way of knowing”. Societal norms change through the ages, but attributing changes in such norms or moral expectations to an improved understanding of god or indeed to that very god itself is pure bunkum.

  19. #19 Douglas Watts
    October 23, 2009

    Excellent essay, Eric. Thanks.

    Also:

    Furthermore, the cultural biases of the scientist influence the very questions that they will ask in the first place.

    This cannot be stated too much, esp. in archaeology and anthropology.

    Henry Thoreau said in the 1830s: “Sometimes circumstantial evidence can be quite strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”

    The geological principle of superimposition was deduced in this way, by the discovery of marine fossils in the Swiss Alps.

    Recently, I have attempted to identify and confirm the existence of prehistoric stone fishing weirs in Maine. The only way to approach this investigation is to apply a rigorous and highly skeptical process of deductive reasoning and elimination. Without employing this method you are taking a high risk of fooling yourself.

  20. #20 Charles
    October 24, 2009

    @MadScientist: Good questions that deserve good answers, but this is not the place to discuss them. My point was that one shouldn’t stereotype all religious folks as rejecting evidence, rejecting the subjectivity of the observer, or rejecting the role of doubt in seeking Truth. Rather, accepting evidence, one’s subjectivity, and doubt are just as crucial in seeking religious understanding as they are in advancing science or any other endeavor that seeks understanding.

  21. #21 Jim Thomerson
    October 24, 2009

    Perhaps some one more knowledgable (and with a better memory) than me could discuss all this from the diverse perspectives of Thomas Kuhn and Sir Karl Popper.

  22. #22 Marion Delgado
    October 24, 2009

    It’s a semantic quibble, largely. To say everything science does is quantifying doubt is ridiculous. A great deal of “established doubt” is flat-out IGNORED when doing actual science, and for good reasons.

  23. #23 Charles
    October 24, 2009

    @MadScientist #18. If one accepts that the spread of STDs occurs in scale-free networks, then, to stop or contain the spread, it’s essential to contain the hubs. Today, that would mean vaccinating the most promiscuous individuals, but that option didn’t exist until modern times.

  24. #24 Bill
    October 24, 2009

    I really enjoyed your post. I like the emphasis on science as a process rather than results. Many people do not make that distinction but it is a rather vital one. It is one of the largest differences between science and religion.

    I know that on a creation/evolution forum I am on this becomes painfully obvious sometimes when some of the creationist members use the fact that science has changed and will continue to change as evidence on the unreliability of science overall.

    In fact one member seems to believe that if it changes then it really wasn’t science at all but rather irresponsible speculation.

    Anyway, really enjoyed the post.

  25. #25 Mark D
    October 25, 2009

    “The action of measuring the electron, hitting it with a photon of light in order to record it, changes its behavior [...] Manipulating bacteria in a laboratory or chasing after bonobos in the rainforest can significantly alter the results that you record”.

    This kind of equation — beloved of anti-science sociologists and pop philosophers alike — is forced and unreasonable: you shouldn’t assert it, and it’s not to be taken seriously.

    The Uncertainty Principle is (apparently) a fact of physics that you can’t get around; what happens when you play with a petri-dish or a bonobo group, however, depends on whether you’re a rubbish practical scientist or not.

    By pretending that there’s an equivalence between the sub-atomic case and the others, you are clearing a path for the kind of trendy relativistic fantasies that will put your — and other people’s — science *in the toilet*. Next time a group of radical feminists at your interdisciplinary seminar shouts “He believes in DNA!” at you, it’ll be because someone like you made them think good science is ‘just another subjective social construct’.

    M.

  26. #26 David Marjanović
    October 25, 2009

    Well said. The uncertainty described in Heisenberg’s principle isn’t merely a fact about our knowledge, it’s a feature of reality itself. In a double-slit experiment, the photon itself doesn’t know which slit it took – or rather, it took both of them.

    There are cases where the simplest explanation is that the collapse of the wavefunction has been observed. For instance, there was an experiment maybe 10 years ago when someone managed to have a beryllium atom in to places at the same time, spin-up in one place, spin-down in the other, and watched this superposition of quantum states collapse. Bringing petri dishes and rainforests into this is simply a category error.

    Just to repeat it: Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is about physics. It is not about epistemology. It is about reality. It is not about philosophy.

  27. #27 David Marjanović
    October 25, 2009

    in to places

    In two places even.

  28. #28 Chris Orlic
    October 25, 2009

    “Scientists also have a creed, or a set of beliefs that guide their action. This creed is that the natural world demonstrates predictable patterns that can be deciphered with careful analysis.”

    Well I would argue that we have no creed. The hypothesis that the world demonstrates a predictable pattern which can be deciphered with careful analysis. This is a hypothesis which is supported by our daily activities and investigations… if this was not the case – science would not work. Scientists thus do not assume that the world is understandable but rather our experience suggests that it is. In the same way our observations and research, and experience support gravitational theory they also support the hypothesis that the world is understandable and follows such discernible patterns.

  29. #29 abb3w
    October 26, 2009

    Chris Orlic: Well I would argue that we have no creed.

    As I alluded earlier, in general anthropological practice Science effectively accepts the philosophical validity of Wolfram’s Axiom for relations between philosophical propositions, the self-consistency of the joint affirmation of the ZF axioms, and the assumption that Reality produces Experience with Pattern. (Or, alternatives which generally reduce to these.) Since these are taken valid without philosophical prior, they are effectively justified only by a form of Faith; and thus, may be viewed as a tacit Creed.

    These, however, are the only points taken on such Faith, with everything else is taken as an inference; and by religious standards, it’s not a particularly exciting Creed.

    Chris Orlic: Scientists thus do not assume that the world is understandable but rather our experience suggests that it is.

    Your claim implicitly presumes that experience is any basis for making general inference. You might want to look up “Hume’s Problem of Induction”. To justify the conclusion, one would appear to need some assumption of a type that can be reduced to “there’s a Pattern”.

    Once you have such assumption, the conclusion is supportable; but you still have an assumption. It’s just one which almost every religion (save perhaps Discordians and other surrealists) also appears at least tacitly to be making.

  30. #30 David Marjanović
    October 26, 2009

    As I alluded earlier, in general anthropological practice Science effectively accepts the philosophical validity of Wolfram’s Axiom for relations between philosophical propositions, the self-consistency of the joint affirmation of the ZF axioms, and the assumption that Reality produces Experience with Pattern. (Or, alternatives which generally reduce to these.) Since these are taken valid without philosophical prior, they are effectively justified only by a form of Faith; and thus, may be viewed as a tacit Creed.

    And… could you briefly explain what all those axioms are?

    Your claim implicitly presumes that experience is any basis for making general inference. You might want to look up “Hume’s Problem of Induction”.

    Induction? What induction? Deduction of a prediction from an ad-hoc hypothesis (such as “there’s a pattern”), and then testing of that prediction, that’s what.

    Or what have I missed?

  31. #31 Jeremy Lent
    October 26, 2009

    I agree wholeheartedly that science should look for empirical truths and avoid search for The Truth.

    However, many distinguished Nobel Prize winning scientists pursue a very different absolutist path, and they have a thousand year tradition behind them. These people (including Hawking, Weinberg, Crick & Dawkins), share an absolutist thought tradition with Christianity and are pretenders to its throne of Truth.

    So maybe there’s more to Wilson’s view of the religion of science than meets the eye.

    Please see my post, Science and Absolutism: The Worship of Truth, for a full discussion…

    http://jeremylent.wordpress.com/2009/10/27/science-and-absolutism-the-worship-of-truth/

  32. #32 robinottawa
    October 27, 2009

    Whew! That was close. Wilson almost got away with that lousy first blog. I commented there that he seems confused about the difference between religion and community (I know, he’s the “expert” so what the heck do I know?). I think I have seniority fwiw. :-)

    Thanks for being truthful enough to say so too, after currying a few of his lice yourself.

  33. #33 abb3w
    November 2, 2009

    David Marjanović: And… could you briefly explain what all those axioms are?

    Briefly? Wolfram’s gives one foundation for a Boolean-equivalent logic; ZF is the gold-standard foundation for modern mathematics. Wikipedia gives a decent overview; or entries at mathworld.wolfram.com if you’d rather have a briefer summary.

    There’s alternative starting foundations possible, but science leaves arguing about how to prove “1+1=2″ to the mathematicians.

    David Marjanović: Induction? What induction? Deduction of a prediction from an ad-hoc hypothesis (such as “there’s a pattern”), and then testing of that prediction, that’s what. Or what have I missed?

    The induction to show that such deduction (based on n successful tests) is sufficient generally to expect valid the case for test n+1. You might want to look at either Wikipedia or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (also on line) for the entry on the Problem of Induction.

    Also, a hypothesis says “there is THIS pattern”, rather than “there is A pattern”.

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